Doomerwave: Vaporwave’s Depressed Cousin

15 July 2020 | 2:35 pm | Staff Writer
Originally Appeared In

An analysis of the Doomer meme and the "doomerwave" music sub-genre.

CW: depression, suicidal ideation.

I’ve had struggles with mental health for some time now. Like, a long time. I had moods as a teenager, I think everybody does, and I was always under the impression that it was just a phase I was going through. I thought at the time: I’m pretty miserable now, but when I get older I’ll come out the other side of whatever this is and I’ll be all the stronger for it. All of the most interesting people in film and television seem to have mental health concerns, after all, is what I thought.

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Then it kept going. It goes away for a while, maybe a long while, and then it comes back. And I know that once something is a part of you for that long, it can start to calcify, becoming rigid and immovable. I don’t think I’m there yet, but it’s hard to say. Much like an idea mentioned in jreg’s excellent video on suicidal ideation, I’d rather say “I’m depressed a lot of the time” rather than “I have depression” or “I am depressed”. The latter two feel too essentializing, like I’ve become something. Being depressed or becoming-depressed sounds more accurate, as it’s a state of constant flux that can be at least managed. My preferred methods of management are: LSD (it’s not for everyone but works for me), writing and music.

I discovered the YouTube “sadcore” ecology in my late teens. Sadcore isn’t a genre so much as a loose category of songs that make you feel particularly sad. All the hits are there: Mogwai’s 'Take Me Somewhere Nice,' Low’s 'Lullaby,' Radiohead’s 'How to Disappear Completely.' Though despite millions of views, sadcore continues to be quite niche. Yet the ethos of sadcore - characterized by slow, hazy, and depressing sounds - is quite popular in mainstream music today. In a lecture on capitalist realism, Mark Fisher noted the emergence of Drake as such a popular figure, and the influence Drake has had on music. Drake’s songs, particularly early in his discography, sounded like the soundtrack to some drugged-out haze, an attempt at escaping reality through painkillers. Mumble rap is another example of this, with rappers choosing not to enunciate words, instead opting for a downbeat slur. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of Lil Peep’s songs, 'Shiver,' samples Have a Nice Life, one of the biggest bands most associated with the sadcore label. Peep would go on to die due to an accidental overdose of depressant drugs in 2017 at just 21. I also think the explosion of popularity for Belorussian post-punk group Molchat Doma is related to this as well. Sure, they’re hardly as mainstream as Lil Peep, Juice Wrld, or Drake, but they’re certainly more popular than their style, which draws from Yugoslavian post-punk and new wave music, would normally warrant.

[caption id="attachment_1109369" align="aligncenter" width="760"] The "Doomer girl"[/caption]

It’s no wonder that the go-to drugs of reference in popular music are depressants like Xanax, Oxycontin, or Percocet. Unlike psychedelics, which dissolve the ego and make one’s relationship with reality negotiable, and stimulants, which make you have fun and want to start a podcast with random strangers you meet at a nightclub, depressants indicate a rejection of life and fulfillment. They match the sentiment expressed in Giles Corey’s 'Nobody is Ever Going to Want Me': “I want to feel the way I feel when I’m asleep”. The only popular performer who seems to talk about doing cocaine is The Weeknd, and even then, the primary theme of his early work was basically “I take cocaine and have sex with models and I’m still sad”. Not even the now-world-famous singer who wrote 'I Can’t Feel My Face,' a song that casts cocaine as a femme fatale, can escape the overwhelming grasp of depression. But it turns out in 2020, the gift that keeps on giving, a challenger has emerged that threatens to take sadcore, and similarly depressing music, to new heights: “doomerwave”.

Doomerwave isn’t a genre of music, but more a style of editing. It's the kind of sub-genre that could only really exist in the 21st century. Much like how vaporwave remixes turn every track into a super-slow, ambient 80’s retro-synth jamboree, or "simpsonwave" doing the same thing but with The Simpsons, doomerwave turns songs, most of which are already depressing in their own right, into the kind of song that the archetypal Doomer would listen to. For example, here is a doomerwave edit of Soundgarden’s '4th of July.' I'd recommend watching the video for the full effect.

The editing on this track is indicative of the entire doomerwave style. It’s subtle, but effective. Doomerwave edits throw on some reverb, slow the song down, add some vinyl scratching, and I wouldn't be surprised if the songs were moved a semitone or two down to top it all off. The editing of the video can’t go unmentioned, as the real-time running of the T.V. and the snow outside the Doomer’s window emphasize stillness and his despondence. The Doomer has essentially given up on life, so what would be the point of unnecessary movement? Compare this to other memes. The Chad is powerful, and taking up as much space as possible. Even the Virgin, hunched over and downtrodden as he is, is pictured in motion. Unlike the Chad or the Virgin, the Doomer is content, with no desire to act on the world. He’s retreating/ed from life entirely, his body haunts his shitty apartment like his memory faintly haunts the people he interacts with. He could probably walk through walls if he had any will to leave his room.

We’re a society of Doomers in a lot of ways. And why shouldn’t we be? Decades of neo-liberalism have eroded any scrap of a civil society, totally fulfilling Marx and Engels’ pronouncement that capitalism renders all social relations down to “callous cash payment”. It turns out that if you just keep saying “there is no such thing as society”, it eventually becomes true. The tipping point of climate change determined by the IPCC draws nearer every day while no country seems willing to make the drastic changes necessary to prevent it. And even if one country could manage it, like New Zealand or Costa Rica or Rwanda, without every other country getting involved, their individual effort would be largely pointless, besides maybe making it onto a list of “cool countries” that people will travel to on commercial airliners in a display of baffling, cosmic irony. Let’s not forget that Western forces have been occupying parts of the Middle East for nearly two decades, in extremely unpopular wars that seem to be ignored at the best of times, suggesting that the ruling class has so little regard for the will of the people that if the occupation of those countries goes unmentioned, we won’t mind our tax dollars funding it indefinitely.

Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections analyses the current crisis of depression and hopelessness through a sociological lens. You’re right to be hopeless and depressed, Hari says (because for the above reasons, and many more), society is hopeless and depressing. Hari compares taking anti-depressants, a totally-justifiable need to alleviate some misery, to taking painkillers to soldier on through his stomach pain, rather than having it looked at to find the cause. He reveals that if he took painkillers and waited out the pain, which was from industrial pesticides he unknowingly ingested, he would’ve died. The current crisis of depression is like a blaring smoke alarm, and it seems as though we would rather take the batteries out than put out the fire in our kitchen.

Popular music is becoming more depressing because the world seems to be becoming more depressing. Not only that, but as I indicated above, depressing music is also becoming more popular. The easy answer for the popularity of doomerwave, as well as the rest of these depressing styles, is to say “it’s the emotional catharsis that it provides” and, to be honest, I think that’s correct. There is a problem, however: catharsis isn’t as healthy as you might think.

The theory is that achieving emotional catharsis, the main example being anger, is like a pressure valve; you let out a little bit at a time so it doesn’t build up and explode, like that one episode of The Simpsons where Ned Flanders goes full blown Nic Cage. This is also the logic behind the world of The Purge, that all violence would disappear if we just let people work through their supposedly natural urge to kill their fellow human beings once a year. We all call this “venting”. But as this article in The Armchair Collective says, therapies that depend on catharsis are “often bullshit”, because emotions don’t work like a tank that fills up until it bursts. Catharsis feels good, yes, but that ends up feeding into a cycle of repeating the actions that brought you that very catharsis. In other words, listening to sadcore or doomerwave because you’re depressed provides you some brief respite, but in doing so, it makes you want to listen to more sadcore, which then makes you depressed, and the cycle continues endlessly. I can personally attest to this. I don’t think I’ve ever plunged into the depths of a YouTube sadcore binge and ended up feeling better. I might have felt validated, but I didn't feel any better.

Compared to other genres of music, doomerwave doesn’t even contain a social factor. If you’re at a party, no one will balk at you throwing on some Drake or The Weekend, they’re both immensely popular artists. Doomerwave, however, is played nowhere but YouTube, because its editing ensures that one can only access these remixes online. Judging from the comments, a plurality of people listening to doomerwave edits identify with the Doomer’s self-imposed isolation.

The Doomer shows that just as it’s important not to avoid misery entirely, it’s also important not to become totally defeatist, and wallow in it. And this is what I believe doomerwave does. Promoting a personal catharsis, which inevitably results in more depression, it allows a retreat from the world, and turns socio-politico-economic depression into what Fisher called the “vast privatisation of mental illness” that preserves the status quo and presents depression as a natural fact. When you listen to, say, the doomerwave remix of Johnny Cash’s Hurt, any depression or injustice you feel at the way society functions becomes transposed as a hurt (there it is) you feel because of the unique circumstances of your life or because of the unique effect of the song. Look below those videos and you will see hundreds of commenters lamenting their own lives, but seldom will you find anyone questioning why hundreds of people have flocked to a sub-genre that simultaneously solves and causes depression.

I don’t blame anybody for enjoying this kind of music. The world is awful for a variety of reasons, and I certainly have some "Doomer" tendencies of my own. Being one is to make a retreat, and doomerwave promotes that, even down to the way in which songs are altered. Their slowed-down pace is emblematic of docility, the stretched time between two beats is time spent waiting, waiting for the next beat, waiting for something to occur. The added vinyl scratches are a yearning for a more “analogue”, or more “authentic” and less plastic world that is now long gone. But waiting and yearning give you nothing. Retreat from the world gives you nothing but imagined respite, and allows anyone less able to retreat (the poor, the global South, minorities, etc.) to fall by the wayside.

This isn’t me not telling you not to listen to doomerwave. Everybody falls into some opaque YouTube algorithm from time to time. This argument is a criticism of what doomerwave does or can do. Over the last decade or so, we seem to be approaching a time of major social change. I’ve heard this referred to as “The Cool Zone”, because it will be "cool" for future historians to study and think about, but not at all good to live through. It’s an unfortunate coincidence that doomerwave has emerged as we’re getting close to a societal precipice. Doomerwave, and the comfort of catharsis that it represents, rejects that precipice, and prioritizes an individualized withdrawal from society rather than acknowledging the possibility for society to change for the better. Nothing about the world we live in is natural. We made it this way, yes, but we can get ourselves out of it.

Hey, if you're feeling depressed, that's okay. You're not alone; it's okay to not be okay; you're not any lesser for asking for help or wanting to talk. If you feel the need to reach out, please find resources and support contacts at: BeyondBlue, Reach Out, Black Dog Institute, and confidential employee assistance group, EapAssist.